Milton Friedman argued in 1953 (and again in 1967) that economic policy differences are rooted primarily in different views about the consequences of those policies — and that these disagreements could largely be eliminated by better positive economics (!). Specifically, he wrote:
I venture the judgment, however, that currently in the Western world, and especially in the United States, differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action – differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive economics – rather than from fundamental differences in basic values, differences about which men can ultimately only fight. (1953)
I have been much impressed, in the course of much controversy about issues of economic policy, that most differences in economic policy in the United States do not reflect differences in value judgments, but differences in positive economic analysis. I have found time and again that in mixed company – that is, a company of economists and noneconomists such as is here today – the economists present, although initially one would tend to regard them as covering a wide range of political views, tend to form a coalition vis-a-vis the noneconomists, and, often much to their surprise, to find themselves on the same side. (1967)
This is a highly problematic contention and something that not even his wife Rose was willing to accept. Indeed, she thought nearly the opposite: “I have always been impressed by the ability to predict an economist’s positive views from my knowledge of his political orientation” (1998).*
My view is that values and interests, not scientific understanding, are at the root of most political differences – and this holds for economists as much as for the rest of us. Indeed, even when economists are in agreement on policy despite different political views, this is often because of a commonly shared fundamental agreement on values, namely a generally consequentialist – even utilitarian – ethical framework that itself is exogenous to economics as a science.
It is worth nothing that Milton wavered later in life in his confidence in this earlier view, noting “I am much less confident now that I am right and she [Rose] is wrong than I was more than four decades ago when I wrote the methodology article…” (1998).
* Rose’s view is very, very troubling since it would make scholarship merely an adjunct to politics rather than a neutral scientific enterprise that might or might not have policy implications. (It is worth explicitly pointing out that she implies the causal arrow is going from political orientation to economic view, rather than the other way around).
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